Family: Keep details of girl's slaying secret

SAN FRANCISCO -- The lawyer for the family of a Northern California girl who was murdered and then stuffed in a suitcase is opposing a request to lift a gag order and unseal court records in the case.

Sandra Cantu's family wants the case sealed permanently because of the horrific and graphic nature of her death, lawyer Stewart Tabak said Friday.

"How many of the gory, gruesome and repulsive details are really encompassed in this so-called well-worn mantra of 'the public's right to know?' " said Tabak, of Stockton. "Doesn't the public already know enough? This poor little child was brutally murdered."

The Associated Press, Bay Area News Group and The Stockton Record on Wednesday filed a court motion challenging San Joaquin County Judge Linda Lofthus' decision to keep the orders intact after Melissa Huckaby pleaded guilty Monday to murdering the 8-year-old girl in March 2009 in Tracy.

The 20-page filing cites that high public interest, as well as Huckaby's guilty plea, removes the need for a gag order and that other court records may shed light on the plea agreement.

"Because much of this case has been shrouded in secrecy, with many of the underlying facts and information about the investigation leading up to the indictment unknown, legitimate questions are raised," Duffy Carolan, a San Francisco-based attorney jointly representing the news organizations, said in the filing.

Tabak, who plans to file opposing papers early next week, disagrees.

"There comes a time when the fascination with the salacious details don't serve any constructive purpose only to make it more bitterly painful for the family," Tabak said.

A hearing is set for May 24 in Stockton.

Huckaby, 29, faces 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole when she is sentenced June 14.

A 10-day search after Sandra, a playmate of Huckaby's daughter, went missing in March 2009 ended when her body was found stuffed in a black suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond a few miles from a mobile home park where they lived.

Huckaby was arrested less than a week later after telling a reporter the suitcase that contained Sandra's body was hers, but it had been stolen from her driveway the day Sandra went missing.

San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa told The Stockton Record on Thursday that prosecutors favor keeping Huckaby's file sealed until her sentencing.

Any unsealing prior to that could cause problems if Huckaby decides to withdraw her guilty plea and pretrial preparations resume, Testa said.

"Things could blow up and then we would be back at the starting point," Testa said. "But by then if everything is revealed and unsealed, we truly would have poisoned the jury pool."

It's unknown whether Lofthus intends to lift the gag order upon Huckaby's sentencing or leave it permanently as Sandra's family wants.

Steven Clark, a Bay Area defense attorney and former prosecutor who attended several of Huckaby's pretrial hearings, said he understands Lofthus' stance.

"She is showing an abundance of caution until the final sentencing occurs," Clark said. "It's a very sensitive case and I can see her not wanting to take a chance. The case is not final until (Huckaby) is sentenced."

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star